Diana Ross’ Mahogany is one of those bad movies providing a full dose of guilty pleasure: any flick that tries to pass off Anthony Makes-Your-Skin-Crawl Perkins as a sex-hungry, vaguely ambisexual high fashion photographer is egging on the mocksters. Having first seen the film some forty years ago, I recall howling when Billy Dee Williams wrestles away a gun Perkins is threatening him with; in re-viewing it the other night on the box, it’s still a scream. When Berry Gordy, who produced Ross’s Lady Sings the Blues, took over directorial duties from Tony Richardson, the creative differences were two-fold. First, Gordy wanted to turn what looked to be a slums-to-riches story about a struggling black fashion designer fighting snobbism into a male vanity production: Ross the pop diva is now Ross as adored fashion queen who chucks it all for the love of her politician-lover Williams (who’d clearly benefit by using a relaxer). Disputes flared over Mahogany giving up what she strived for: her success in the fashion world would likely not have been achieved through the auspices of the bed she’s expected to sleep in—this woman is not exactly young stuff—but by an industry renowned for its abundant tolerance, the antithesis of the bigot-loaded, sleazy vice that is politics. Would a modern Chi-town black woman say to hell with a hit career just for the love of her “old man,” who wants her around as less a creative force and more as a vote-getting trophy? (No.) Second, Richardson was reluctant to abide Ross’s own fashion designs for Mahogany the designer: they’re Vegas kabuki, so snickeringly gaudy that it’s easy to end up feeling sympathy for the industry that repeatedly snubs her. The designs become even more of a bad-taste showcase when contrasted with the clothes Ross wears off the runway; they’re chic, fitting and improbably hers. If Ross is no diva as supermodel—she wears clothes as perpetual embellishment, the opposite of stylish functionality—she is a great high gloss cover; amid the ruins of lushly ancient Roma, dressed as the symbol of ghetto couture, her hair and makeup done by Tournage, she’s intimidating glamour. (Beyoncé gave the sequence a nod in Dreamgirls.) Indisputably the black female icon of 60s soft rock, Ross—and, of course, the Supremes—can infuse any party with more karaoke than just about any other singer or group. What songs more than “Stop! In the Name of Love,” “Back in My Arms Again” and “You Keep Me Hanging On” can get even our most masculine buddies up on the floor to drag those inimitable lines and bat-wing gestures? The power of pop iconolatry. And this is what Gordy attempts in Mahogany: we’re supposed to feel a generational kinship to Ross’s “Do You Know Where You’re Going To,” only it’s more like a soapy lullaby, and Ross is neither in good voice nor well-supported—she’s pitched too high, soaked in sappy lyrics and swooning violins. It doesn’t seem to matter, either, that the song contradicts Mahogany’s determined dreams for herself. Never having directed a movie before, Gordy gets the deserving blame for much of what’s cuckoo-headed. What saves it is that we all have an appetite for kitsch. In this mockster bash, Ross is enjoyable as the prima donna of Motown theatricality; she’s the original RuPaul.
Text COPYRIGHT © 2007 RALPH BENNER All Rights Reserved.